Perpignan is often described as the less pretentious version of the French Riviera thanks to the more relaxed locals, lack of large developments and greater affordability.
Located down in the deep south of France, right by the Spanish border, lies this Catalonian gem of a city. These three distinct cultures blend together in Perpignan in the form of food, art, architecture and ways of living in general. The place and people are made up of all the best bits of the Mediterranean.
And while the thriving city is full of brilliant galleries, historical monuments and damn good restaurants, it’s the surrounding area which makes it that extra bit appealing. Visitors to Perpignan usually add on a few extra days to visit the nearby coast, countryside and mountain ranges because there is so much going on locally.
Perpignan, like much of the surrounding area has a very tumultuous history. Because it lies on the border of France and Spain it was constantly under siege by foreign invaders. Even pirates attacked on the odd occasion.
This led to the creation of some impressive fortified monuments and a varied landscape of architecture. The Palace of Kings of Mallorca is one of the mightiest structures in Perpignan and is the place to go for uninterrupted views across the city and surrounding countryside. But in the city centre it’s often best to throw down your map and wander the clean winding streets lined with large palm trees and ginger-pink coloured buildings.
Be sure to investigate Casa Xanxo during said wandering. The building, like the city itself, is very unassuming. It isn’t until you venture inside that you’re greeted with a flurry of over the top baroque artwork and interior design. There’s even a secret tropical garden located round the back, perfect for reading and soaking up some of the sun.
And, if you’re visiting during the right time of year, be sure to check out the outdoor festivals and film nights at the palace, Campo Santo, or the many street squares. It’s a super lively city where plenty is going on throughout the year – summer is just when it really comes alive.
Perpignan is only 13km away from the Med. That’s just a hop, skip and jump away. Canet is one of the main seaside resort towns, which looks like Miami did back in the ’80s. There’s a lot of colour, wide boulevards and long sandy beaches full of locals and tourists alike. It’s for the beach-goers wanting a livelier seaside experience.
Le Franqui is where the all-too-cool wind surfers congregate and is usually not as packed during the summer months. Just be careful not to be hit by the flying surfers.
Torreilles beach is one of our very favourites. It feels wilder and more hidden than all others with rolling sand dunes making it feel more private too. You will never struggle to find a spot on the sand or up at one of the nearby bars. It’s some proper escapism after living it up in Perpignan for a few days.
And just a 30-minute drive away is the famous village of Collioure which is worth a longer stay. This is where French painter Matisse lived for some years, gaining inspiration from the brightly coloured homes, ancient seaside fortresses and green surrounds.
Vineyards cover much of the land surrounding Perpignan, lining the plateau and steep hills. Take a picturesque drive around the wineries, stopping off at each to buy a bottle or two to take home. But we can’t resist a proper wine tasting at one of the most prestigious wineries in the area – Domaine Lafage.
Take a tour of the vineyards before tasting the whites, reds and famous roses before heading off for more countryside exploring. They even host small festivals and dining events throughout the year for a little extra indulgence.
And if you’re up for a slightly longer day trip, you must visit Carcassonne. The entire village is like a real-life fairytale scene. The incredibly well-preserved medieval fortified city is also one of the best places in France to see the Bastille Day fireworks.
As the summer season comes to an end and the sunburnt British tourists return to gloomy London, skiers take to the slopes of the Pyrénées.
Andorra is a favourite ski destination, but you don’t have to leave France to get some proper snow. This is a far less pretentious version of the Alps, much like the coast surrounding Perpignan is the less pretentious version of the French Riviera. Grand Tourmalet, Cauterets, and La Molina are some of the top resorts where you can slide down the slopes while overlooking the Mediterranean in the distance; one of the most picturesque sights you’ll ever lay eyes on.
Lead image by Lionel Moogin